It would be difficult to miss the exciting physical transformation-in-progress at MaRS, as Phase 2 of the MaRS Centre takes shape adjacent to the Heritage Building, doubling our footprint in Toronto’s Discovery District.

More subtle, but perhaps even more exciting, are new initiatives underway inside MaRS. In addition to helping big-thinking entrepreneurs scale their businesses and social enterprises, we are focusing more attention on moving the key levers of innovation to achieve systems-level change. To that end, we are launching initiatives that strategically leverage MaRS’ core assets.

The newest of these is the recently announced MaRS Solutions Lab.

As we work with entrepreneurs and partners to create thriving knowledge-based businesses in Canada, deep challenges persist that transcend single ideas, companies or even industries.

Pervasive, seemingly intractable societal problems — for instance inadequate caregiver systems for an aging population, disability and employment barriers, and unsustainable food systems — have eluded traditional approaches and exact a terrible toll on society’s most vulnerable people. Other challenges reflect current economic shifts — the uncertain future of manufacturing, the need for retraining and rethinking public services.

Harnessing innovation to improve both prosperity and well-being is part of MaRS’ bedrock. To quote Dr. John Evans, MaRS Co-Founder and Chair Emeritus, “Converging technologies have the promise to achieve tremendous improvements in human capital, innovation, economic performance and the quality of life.”

We are not alone in exploring new approaches, in partnership with thoughtful stakeholders, to address our thorniest problems. Throughout the world, lab models are bringing together multifaceted teams around creative, user-centric approaches as alternatives to stale methods and lumbering institutions (for example, the MIT AgeLab and Media Lab, MindLab in Denmark, Participle in the UK, Helsinki Design Lab in Finland, in California, InWithFor in Australia, and Stanford University’s, to name a few). For more information on these and other Lab models, see our review Labs: Designing the Future.

A unique intersection

We are now distilling the essence of what MaRS will bring to such a model, informed by the distinct features of best-in-class labs globally.

Much like a traditional science lab, wherein the scientific method is the iterative process to achieve results, the MaRS Solutions Lab will be a neutral space dedicated to problem-solving in a highly experimental (fail friendly) environment, using repeatable, rigorous, design-driven protocol.

MaRS’ unique position, both physically and virtually — adjacent to academe, government and business, while rooted in entrepreneurship and community — enables us to convene cross-sections of people with relevant experience around issues that they can jointly “own” and for which they can “co-create” solutions.

This innovation furnace will live inside MaRS, but will reach beyond Toronto’s Discovery District to include key national and global networks.  It will take convening three critical steps further:

  1. Experts and leaders will be joined by a diverse group of exceptional young people — the MaRS Fellows — who are poised to become the next generation’s innovation leaders.
  2. Multidisciplinary teams will employ an inclusive, facilitated process to define and refine problems, and then to build, test and implement solutions. Solutions will be advanced with the user at the centre.
  3. This iterative process will encourage breakthrough thinking and risk-taking in an environment that focuses on learning through doing. This is not a think-tank, but rather a solutions-focused “action tank.”

The MaRS Solutions Lab represents a unique opportunity for today’s leaders to teach and learn from each other and to prepare a new generation for the challenging work of building a better future. Together, they will advance inspired solutions to some of society’s most daunting problems.

A MaRS tribute to Dr. John Evans

Derek Evans, son of Dr. John Evans, at last week’s announcement

It is fitting that the MaRS Solutions Lab was launched last week with a generous gift of $10 million from the Evans family. This gift not only honours John Evans, but also reaffirms his family’s commitment to MaRS and belief in its critical role in Canada’s innovation future. We are enormously grateful for this support.

At every stage of his remarkable career, John Evans has pioneered a new kind of leadership: open, collaborative and enabling — anticipating what we, as a society, will need if we are serious about tackling the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.

Dr. Evans brought this unique leadership approach to MaRS, inspiring its bold mission and exemplifying its values. He firmly believes that the extraordinary is possible if we align our interests and fully commit our collective energies and talents.

The MaRS Solutions Lab represents MaRS’ next step in translating John Evans’ unique version of collaborative leadership into an effective platform to achieve public good.


Plaque unveiled, designating the MaRS Heritage Building as the Evans Wing

Over the years, many of us have sought a way to thank John Evans — a truly great Canadian. He has successfully resisted our efforts, until now! It is hard to imagine that a room could hold more affection and admiration than was felt at the celebration for Dr. John Evans and the Evans family last Thursday evening at MaRS.

With the Evans family’s gift, the MaRS Solutions Lab has the potential to become a worthy tribute — if, and only if, it delivers remarkable results, in keeping with the demands of these remarkable times. We also know that John Evans would expect nothing less. Success hinges, like it does for MaRS, on the engagement and support of our community.

With this announcement, we’ve come one step closer to realizing our vision of a better future for all Canadians and in so doing, honouring one of our greatest citizens.



Ilse Treurnicht

Ilse Treurnicht was CEO of MaRS, a 1.5-million-sq.-ft. innovation hub located in Toronto. See more…